Battered by a public outcry over plummeting student test scores — and bracing for more poor results to come — the state's top education officials went on the defensive Friday, creating a call center, websites and a designated email address for frustrated parents.
Even with the release Friday of some positive high school reading scores, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson found himself stressing that the FCAT is a "valid exam."
A drop in test results was a natural effect of the state's effort to ramp up academic standards. "The reliability is the same as before," Robinson said.
So far, his assurances haven't resonated with parents like Chris Powell, who is worried that his two sons won't graduate from St. Petersburg High School.
"They're playing games with the kids," Powell said. His eldest already failed the FCAT once. The other was retained after missing the mark on the third-grade test. Now a sophomore, his son is anxiously waiting for this year's scores.
"It shouldn't be all or nothing," Powell said.
This year, state education officials implemented more changes than ever before to the signature test of Florida's accountability system, which has served as a model across the nation. The changes have ranged from making some tests more difficult to stricter scoring on the writing exam.
Even some staunch supporters of the FCAT suggested that the state Department of Education went too far, too fast with the writing exam changes.
"It was probably too much, too soon," said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Scores released so far have been an emotional roller coaster, and state officials warned again Friday that some FCAT scores and school grades likely will go down.
That means more D and F schools and more third-graders held back.
Reading scores released Friday for ninth- and 10th-graders gave some schools reason to celebrate, showing improvements despite an increase in the exam's rigor.
Ninth-graders in Pinellas and Hernando counties beat the state average, while their 10th-graders fell just below. In Hillsborough County, that was reversed, with freshman just below the state and sophomores just above.
Pasco County's ninth- and 10th-graders beat the state averages.
But it was the state's writing scores, released earlier this week, that provoked an outcry. The scores dropped so dramatically in one year that state officials lowered the test's passing mark to protect school grades.
More than 800 people, many of them concerned parents and teachers, dialed into the state Board of Education's emergency meeting, held via conference call.
That backlash — and the drop in writing scores — concerned the likes of John Winn, a former education commissioner who helped create Florida's A-Plus plan under Jeb Bush.
He fears it could hurt the credibility of the entire system and called it an "avoidable mistake."
But, he said, "It's not a lesson not to do it, it's a lesson to do it well."
Kathleen Shanahan, chairwoman of the state board, acknowledged that the state has made more changes in the past year than in the "15 years prior."
"All of these things are sort of evolving simultaneously. It's never going to be perfect," she said.
But she said it makes sense to "take a breath and reassess." She said she believes the state board did that Tuesday when it lowered the passing rate for the writing scores.
Some district leaders have protested the pace of changes to the state's accountability system.
In Miami-Dade County, the School Board approved a measure Wednesday to ask the state to consider alternatives to the FCAT, and superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school district will consider "legal options available to us" if some student groups are affected more than others, according to the Miami Herald.
Pinellas County schools chief John Stewart said he wasn't ready to go that far. But, he said "maybe it's time to stop and take a look at how the state assesses students."
Robinson, who supported the state board's decision to lower the passing score, said increasing the academic standards will allow struggling students to be identified early on and reduce the need for remedial classes in college.
It also puts Florida among about 15 states whose standards already are "closely aligned" with the Common Core, a state-led effort to develop national academic measures, he said. That's important because Florida plans to mostly phase out the FCAT by the 2014-15 school year, replacing it with Common Core tests and end-of-course exams in high schools.
"When we walk into 2015, it's going to be a way different state," Robinson said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)-893-8846.